The Startling Effect of Diet on the Brain

The Startling Effects of Diet on the Brain

More and more research is highlighting the strong connection between the gut and the brain. For many years we’ve heard of the damage that can be done to our bodies by high fat and high sugar diets. Now, there is startling evidence that the effects on our bodies are only part of the story, with diet also able to cause changes in the brain.

New research has found that a diet high in fat and sugar causes changes in the gut bacteria that seem to be related to a significant loss of cognitive flexibility, which is the power to adapt to change. The effect was strongest on a high sugar diet, which also impaired long and short-term memory.

The research was conducted on mice (because of their biological and physiological similarities to humans). After being fed different diets, they were given a variety of tests to explore the changes in their mental and physical function, as well as the changes in different types of gut bacteria.

After four weeks on a high fat or high sugar diet, there was a significant decline in the mental and physical function of the mice. One of the most profound changes was in cognitive flexibility.

Magnussen explained cognitive flexibility in this way, ‘Think about driving home on a route that’s very familiar to you, something you’re used to doing. Then one day that road is closed and you suddenly have to find a new way home.’

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Someone with a high level of cognitive flexibility would quickly adapt by finding another way home, and remembering to use that same route the next morning. Someone with diminished cognitive flexibility would struggle to adapt to the change, and would likely have a slow, stressful trip home.

The mice used in the study were younger ones, who would typically have a greater capacity to resist the impact of changes to their gut bacteria, or microbiota. In older humans or animals whose biological system might not be as healthy, the effect of high sugar and high fat on cognitive function might be even stronger.

‘It’s increasingly clear that our gut bacteria, or mictrobiota, can communicate with the human brain,’ reported Kathy Magnussen, a professor at Oregon State University.

 This study backs up an abundance of previous research that has demonstrated the influence of food on the brain, and gives us another good reason to taper down on fat and sugar.

5 Comments

Carol

This is such poignant information for my family. Thank you so much! I’ve learned a lot through your posts on your site “Hey Sigmund”. This is practical and applicable advice !

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Noelle

Very interesting … I’ve had an interest in holistic mental/physical health for some time. The theory of the gut as tied to other parts of a person’s health has really grabbed me.

However, I wonder about one part of this article: you mention that studies see high sugar and high fat as similarly destructive of overall health. I agree about sugar (that is, processed sugars). However, from what I’ve read, the common wariness about high fat comes from a faulty lumping-together of ALL kinds of fats into one category, rather than distinguishing different kinds. That is, there is a huge difference in the consumption of processed fats (typical of modern American diets) and the traditional consumption of unprocessed plant and animal fats. Take the French, for example, who seem to have a generous approach to natural fats and yet don’t suffer negative consequences from it. I’d love to see this research taking more of these sorts of distinctions into account, and see how it affects the outcomes.

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‘Brave’ doesn’t always feel like certain, or strong, or ready. In fact, it rarely does. That what makes it brave.♥️
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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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